Santana: The Tricky Debate Surrounding Supervisor Term Limits

Supervisor Shawn Nelson (left) and local watchdog Shirley Grindle. (Photos by Michelle Rubio for Voice of OC and Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

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Orange County Supervisors this week will host a countywide public discussion on a critical topic, uniquely near and dear to their own hearts.

Staying in office…maybe for life.

Yet, as usual in realm of politics, the tagline for this adventure will be the complete opposite.

Imposing lifetime term limits.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson is expected to come back Tuesday with a controversial idea he shelved earlier this month; to extend county supervisors’ terms.

Backed by Republican state Sen. John Moorlach, who is a former county supervisor, Nelson is seeking support from his colleagues to put a ballot measure on the November ballot that would extend supervisors’ term limit to three terms and impose a lifetime limit.

The idea was bashed by local GOP activist Jon Fleischman and others earlier this month, who questioned whether term limits have become such a solid Republican mantra that they should not be tinkered with.

Nelson and Moorlach meanwhile argue that we in Orange County currently have weak term limits, easily sidestepped by a rising tide of supervisors – who jump to Sacramento elective office and then plot multiple returns to county office.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen is reportedly mulling a future return to the Hall of Administration. Others like state Sen. Pat Bates, and even Moorlach himself, are also alumni from the board and potentially also could come back to their old seat on the county dais.

Their argument is that we need to ban supervisors from dancing around with so many different electoral office partners.

They want to make sure we don’t’ end up with career politicians.

That means we need lifetime term limits.

And the best way to ensure that (again, get ready for the deep ironic twist)…is to do the exact opposite.

Extend terms.

Now the idea on its own – a three-term lifetime limit for local office – is not necessarily a bad one.

Just consider the campaign finance implications.

Keep in mind that virtually every county supervisor is born in debt.

The new supervisor often walks into office several hundred thousand dollars down and has to start fundraising immediately.

That’s why they are so easily captivated by special interests, especially early on in their term of office.

One of the very first things that Supervisor Lisa Bartlett did when she won office back in November 2014 was to send out fundraising letters to county contractors.

Supervisor Andrew Do has been out frantically fundraising for statues to place at Mile Square Park to help him win re-election this November.

I point these two examples out but you can practically put any supervisor’s name up here and you will see the fundraising machine in action.

Now, again, early in their terms, most county supervisors are fundraising like mad, trying to get their money back and not looking for controversy. After being elected to a second term, most supervisors are looking at their next electoral opportunity – largely out of necessity to survive politically.

Now by a third term as a county supervisor, most supervisors would have a much more free hand, one they could theoretically start playing even earlier while in office.

A lifetime ban means one run is all a supervisor gets.

No retreads.

So why are people like campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle balking?

Grindle had been asked to write the ballot arguments for this initiative but she balked on Friday.

While she agrees that a three-term lifetime limit is desirable, Grindle told me she’s uneasy about endorsing a ballot initiative tinkering with term limits without a full understanding of whether it can be defended in court.

Her nightmare scenario is supporting the measure and then finding out it gives us county supervisors for life.

Can you imagine voters passing a “lifetime” ban on office and then finding out current office holders are exempt?

That would potentially give you people like Nelson, Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Nguyen, Moorlach for another twelve years each.

Now Nelson – who insists he’s running for judge next year and doesn’t care about the outcome of this debate – told me last week he was confident that County Counsel Leon Page’s office could produce a new ordinance that could withstand any legal challenge from former office holders.

But with a short window left for supervisors to place an initiative on the ballot, Grindle has good reason to be nervous about legislating from the hip.

Nelson himself pulled off an amazing political feat, finalized just this month against the protest of county Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery, by securing a complete pension from the county government – after publicly turning down a pension and pushing to get out just after being inaugurated in 2012.

After sponsoring another ballot initiative in 2014 (Measure A) – which was billed as forcing county supervisors to take a lower-tier pension – it turned out that the new initiative (again, cue ironic twist-theme music ) actually gave Nelson a pension.

It forced a pension on Nelson, as he likes to say.

Could lightning strike the same county supervisor twice?

Stay tuned on Tuesday.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Would anyone notice if Shawn was there four more years? I mean, besides the higher Starbucks budget? I suppose if the AC went out, he might melt or something, but wax and lard aren’t that hard to clean, really…

  • Paul Lucas

    And we have already seen this in action in Santa Ana that made Pulido a mayor for life basically.

  • Paul Lucas

    A third term does little to change the dynamics in my opinion. I would be hesitant to believe nelson after his flip flops o the pension issue itself.

  • David Zenger

    8 years is more than enough. Period.

    Moorlach deluded himself into thinking he was actually accomplishing something in Building 10 and needed 4 more years to complete his Good Works. Or maybe he just wanted to see the Alamitos Pump Station finally get done – after 10 years.